Heiltsuk sues for damages on anniversary of oil spill

(Vancouver, October 10, 2018) – Two years ago, an oil spill rocked Bella Bella, a Heiltsuk community in the heart of what is known as the Great Bear Rainforest. Today, Heiltsuk leaders gathered in Vancouver to announce they are taking legal action.

“This claim follows two years of independent investigation by Heiltsuk into the spill’s cause, response, and impacts,” announced elected Chief Councillor Marilyn Slett. “The preparation of this case itself is a major achievement, since Canada, B.C., and Kirby have denied or ignored our requests for information, consultation, and support. Our hope is that this case sets a new precedent for oil spill response for the province and the country. I wouldn’t wish these last two years on anyone.”

The American-owned tug and articulated barge, known as Nathan E. Stewart and operated by Kirby Corporation, ran aground in Heiltsuk territory on October 13, 2016, after the watchperson fell asleep. The tug eventually sank spilling 110,000 litres of diesel fuel, lubricants, heavy oils, and other pollutants into Gale Pass, an important Heiltsuk food harvesting, village, and cultural site. Since the spill, governments of Canada and B.C. as well as Kirby have left the Heiltsuk to fend for themselves, declining to do a meaningful post-spill environmental impact assessment to determine the extent of contamination and other impacts on the surrounding land, sea, and marine life.

“When the Nathan E. Stewart sank it took with it livelihoods, our clam fishery, and part of what makes this place home,” says hereditary chief and first responder Harvey Humchitt. “It was painful to watch the damage unfold as we waited for support and supplies. More painful still when the teams and equipment that did arrive were disorganized, ineffective and, ultimately, powerless to protect our waters and lands.”

Heiltsuk is seeking compensation for damages resulting from the grounding of the Nathan E. Stewart and the subsequent oil spill. These include loss of traditional harvest and associated cultural losses, and commercial losses, as well as costs associated with oil spill response efforts, Heiltsuk-led environmental impact assessment, and other remediation.

The case raises questions about the national and provincial oil spill response framework, Canada and B.C.’s duty to consult communities affected by spills, and constitutional questions, including whether aboriginal title applies to the seabed and foreshore. It is built on findings from the Heiltsuk adjudication report, a lengthy analysis of the spill in the context of Heiltsuk law released to the public today by Heiltsuk Tribal Council’s Adjudication Committee; an investigation report Heiltsuk released in 2017; and a study of various policies, including the Marine Liability Act, Ship Source Pollution Fund, and other precedents summarized in the Notice of Civil Claim filed today.

“Since time immemorial, we have followed Ǧviḷás, Heiltsuk traditional law. It tells us to balance the health of the water and land with the needs of our people and to ensure there will always be plentiful resources,” says Frank Brown, hereditary chief and member of the adjudication committee. “Today, Gale Pass is in jeopardy because of Canada, British Columbia, and Kirby’s actions. Our law has been violated and the legal action we are taking in the B.C. Supreme Court today is our bid to hold them accountable.”


Contact media@heiltsuk.ca for interviews. For links to the adjudication report, notice of civil claim, photography and b-roll from the spill, visit http://www.heiltsuknation.ca/the-nathan-e-stewart-oil-spill/.